Winter Barn Owls in Devon

The sight of a Barn Owl in the soft winter light is one of the most stunning sights in the British isles.  Silently quartering the rough grassland in search of prey, the Barn Owl uses its amazingly sensitive hearing to pinpoint the location of its prey.

During prolonged spells of poor weather Barn Owls are often forced to hunt during daylight hours, something that ordinarily they would seldom do.  Locally I have been working with a landowner to create a fantastic habitat for Barn Owls which fundamentally means creating a vole rich environment by allowing a litter layer to form in the fields.  This provides the voles with a superb habitat which in turn attracts the Barn Owls.

There are a couple of old hay barns on the land, with no signs of use.  During the summer I helped the land owner prepare the barns so that any Barn Owls that did choose to visit would hopefully stay.  We erected nesting boxes in both barns which are important for Barn Owls not only for breeding but also for winter roosting.  The barns were also filled with a few feet of hay and dry grass which can be a lifeline to Barn Owls in winter as many small rodents will use the barns, so the Barn Owls can hunt without having to brave the elements.  Also, the decaying hay and grass generates heat which can keep the barn milder than the outside in times of severe cold snaps.

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Over the past few months we have noted the occasional sighting of Barn Owls and since November have had regular sightings of a Barn Owl hunting over the fields in the twilight hours.  To allow the Barn Owl the best chance of survival I have purposefully not visited the area too frequently, in my opinion disturbing a Barn Owl from a winter roost when the weather is bad is worse than disturbing it during the breeding season due to the potentially fatal consequences.  Today however I was installing Kestrel and Little Owl nest boxes in some old oak trees and saw the Barn Owl leave the barn just before dusk and start hunting in the far field.  I jumped in the hide I have made for the kestrels and waited as slowly the Barn Owl floated towards the field I was in.  Even in the poor light (almost dark!) the D800 and 200-400 F4 allowed me to get a couple of nice shots of the Barn Owl, which appears to have a ring on its left leg.  Hopefully it will find the area to its liking and stay on the territory…. time will tell.

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